ATTORNEY: MICHAEL J. WERNKE
POMERANTZ MONITOR: MAY/JUNE 2019
In a significant victory for investors, Pomerantz, as lead counsel for the class, has achieved a $110 million settlement with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles N.V. as well as certain of Fiat Chrysler’s former executives. Judge Jesse Furman in the district court of the Southern District of New York granted preliminary approval of the settlement on April 10, 2019 and set the final approval hearing for September 5, 2019.
The litigation against one of the world’s largest car manufacturers involved accusations that the defendants misled investors when they asserted that the company was complying with its obligations to conduct safety recalls under regulations promulgated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (“NHTSA”) as well as with emissions regulations, promulgated by the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) and the European Union, designed to control emissions of Nitrogen Oxide (“NOx”). In truth, Fiat Chrysler had a widespread pattern of violations dating back to 2013, in which the company would purposefully delay notifying vehicle owners of defects and failing to repair the defects for months or years. The company also improperly outfitted its diesel vehicles in the U.S. and Europe (including Jeep Grand Cherokee and Ram 1500) with “defeat device” software designed to cheat NOx emissions regulations. The defeat device software, which was similar to that employed by Volkswagen in the highly publicized “Dieselgate” scandal, was able to detect when the vehicle was being tested by a regulator (such as the EPA). When testing conditions were detected, the vehicle would perform in a compliant manner, limiting emissions of NOx. When testing conditions were not detected, such as during real-world driving conditions, the emissions controls were disabled, and the vehicles would spew illegal and dangerous levels of NOx.
The truth concerning Fiat Chrysler’s violations was revealed in a series of disclosures that caused the company’s stock price to plummet. On July 26, 2015, NHTSA announced a Consent Order against Fiat Chrysler, fining the company a record-high $105 million and requiring a substantial number of recalls and repairs. On October 28, 2015, the company announced a $900 million charge to earnings for an increase in estimated future recalls. The company’s stock price also declined in 2016 and 2017, when the EPA and other US and European regulators publicly accused Fiat Chrysler of using defeat devices to cheat NOx emissions regulations.
The settlement was achieved after three and a half years of hard-fought litigation. Discovery was wide-ranging. It involved analyzing millions of pages of documents concerning highly complex issues of emissions software programming and resulted in the exchange of reports by eleven experts on issues implicating U.S. as well as European regulations. The claims ultimately survived multiple rounds of motions to dismiss. Initially the emissions allegations were dismissed because the court determined that the complaint did not plead facts sufficient to demonstrate that the defendants knew that their statements of compliance were misleading. We were given leave to replead, and Pomerantz then filed Freedom of Information Act requests with the EPA. Its response included emails from Fiat Chrysler executives showing that they knew that the EPA had discovered certain defeat devices on the company’s vehicles. The defendants nevertheless continued to falsely assure investors that the company’s vehicles were compliant and did not contain any such defeat devices. When we filed an amended complaint that included those facts, these additional allegations revived the emissions claims.
Ultimately Pomerantz secured class certification on behalf of investors, which was followed by summary judgment proceedings. As the prospect of trial loomed, defendants finally agreed to the settlement.
In addition to creating precedent-setting case law in successfully defending the various motions to dismiss, Pomerantz also significantly advanced investors’ ability to obtain critically important discovery from regulators that are often at the center of securities actions. During the course of the litigation, Pomerantz sought the deposition of a former employee of NHTSA. The United States Department of Transportation (“USDOT”), like most federal agencies, has enacted a set of regulations — known as “Touhy regulations” — governing when its employees may be called by private parties to testify in court. On their face, USDOT’s regulations apply to both current and former employees. In response to Pomerantz’s request to depose a former NHTSA employee that interacted with Fiat Chrysler, NHTSA denied the request, citing the Touhy regulation. Despite the widespread application, and assumed appropriateness, of applying these regulations to former employees throughout the case law, Pomerantz filed an action against USDOT and NHTSA, arguing that the statute pursuant to which the Touhy regulations were enacted speaks only of “employees,” which should be interpreted to apply only to current employees. The court granted summary judgment in favor of Pomerantz’s clients, holding that “USDOT’s Touhy regulations are unlawful to the extent that they apply to former employees.” This victory will greatly shift the discovery tools available, so that investor plaintiffs in securities class actions against highly-regulated entities (for example, companies subject to FDA regulations) will now be able to depose former employees of the regulators that interacted with the defendants during the class period to get critical testimony concerning the company’s violations and misdeeds.
The firm’s perseverance resulted in a recovery that provides the class of investors with as much as 20% of recoverable damages—an excellent result when compared to historical statistics in class action settlements, where typical recoveries for cases of this size are between 1.6% and 3.3%.